In Invisible Man, what is the narrator's perception of himself at the beginning of the novel compared to at the end?Using this idea to write a thesis. Describe how Ellison shows this change.

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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The narrator's perception of himself before his descent underground was that of a studious, dutiful son—someone who behaved according to others' expectations:

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory.

This contradiction is illustrated by his realization that his grandfather, who had been praised by whites as "an example of desirable conduct," considered himself a "traitor" due to his willingness to comply with white expectations. The narrator, prior to the Battle Royal, has a similar feeling, thinking that when he was praised for exemplary conduct, he "was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks" and "that if they had understood they would have desired me to act . . . sulky and mean." Here, his identity is predetermined by both racist prejudices against black people, white standards of black conduct, and the confusion over what the racist really wants—the exhibition of the stereotype or the rule-abiding behavior. As a result, the narrator does not know who he is. Others cannot see him and he cannot see himself.

It is not until he is plunged into darkness—into literal "blackness"—at the end of the novel that he is able to see what he could not see before. He can see the universe and all of its history while lying in a state of paralysis. The beginning of the novel, on the other hand, begins with the violent movements in the Battle Royal and continues with the narrator's movement to university then to Harlem. He made his journeys in an effort to belong, but realizes, in the end, that he can only approach life "from the outside."

His final thought at the end of the final chapter contrasts with the first thought of the first chapter. He begins with an effort to recount history to explain himself: "It goes a long way back, some twenty years." The final line—"the end was in the beginning"—parallels the previous tendency to look backward, but also reverses his sense of origin. That is, his construction of self does not begin in his early life, or even during his grandfather's deathbed speech, but instead, after his descent, when he is left alone to think about his life and those who influenced it. Only alone, in darkness, can he find himself.

susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ellison's Invisible Man is told in retrospect.  As the narrator declares, "the end is in the beginning."  In order to determine his perception of himself at the end of the novel, it is necessary to read the Prologue.  In the Prologue, we learn that the Invisible Man has withdrawn completely from society, that he literally lives in a hole in the ground.  He declares that before he was ignorant, living in darkness, but now he sees that he is indeed invisible to society.  No one really sees him for who he truly is.  He has no identity; he is not part of a group, he will not be defined by anyone else.  The end of the novel picks up again with the Invisible Man contemplating his "hibernation" and realizing that is is time to emerge.

I've overstayed my hibernation, since there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.

He is going to make himself heard.  Even an invisible man has a voice, he realizes.

The novel itself concerns the Invisible Man's journey to find his identity.  As he moves from place to place and connects with various groups, he learns that he cannot be defined by his membership within a group.  In other words, he learns what he is not, and he learns that others do not see him as he is.

In the Battle Royal, for instance, he is seen as a poor black boy whose only purpose is to amuse the white establishment through painful humiliation.  He has no better success at the state college for Negroes where he received a scholarship, his employment at the Liberty Paint factory, or his active role for the Brotherhood.  He finds that in almost every instance, he is only being manipulated or used, like a dancing Sambo puppet on a string.  At each place, in each group, the Invisible has an epiphany that enables him to move on and search for another place to belong.  He fails in his search and at the end of the novel,  he declares that he is fully aware of his situation:

No, I couldn't return to Mary's, or to the campus, or to the Brotherhood, or home.

He must live apart.  No more will he sacrifice who he truly is in order to satisfy others, no more will he "conform to a pattern,"  he is now a "disembodied voice" speaking only for himself, and in speaking only for himself, he is perhaps speaking for all of mankind.

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Invisible Man

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